On Prose: Literature Needs Infrastructure and the Valley’s Is Crumbling

  • The Dartmouth Bookstore, center, and other local businesses participate in the annual Hanover Street Fest in Hanover, N.H., on July 3, 1983. (Valley News - Kris Craig) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Kris Craig

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    Republican presidential candidate John McCain meets, greet and signs copies of his book "Faith of My Fathers" at the Dartmouth Bookstore in Hanover, N.H., on Sept. 11, 1999. The store sold its 258 copies of the book in an hour. "We're No. 5 on Amazon.com," said McCain as he signed copies of his recently released autobiography. (Valley News - Amy Thompson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

For the Valley News
Published: 11/29/2018 10:00:31 PM
Modified: 11/30/2018 11:54:51 AM

Readers and writers in this corner of the world took three heavy hits in 2018, the implications of which are very discouraging. Books are a collaboration between the person writing them and the person reading them, and to enable this partnership to flourish — and to allow writers to earn an income from their work — a healthy literary infrastructure has to be in place. Without it, literature suffers; without it, the cultural life of our valley, our region, our country, is much poorer.

So. Sad news. But it’s important to pay tribute to what has been lost.

After being in business for over 140 years, the Dartmouth Bookstore announced it will be closing by the end of the year. Truth is, it’s been a shadow of its former self for many years now, often deserted, and — to those of us who remember its glory days — eerily haunted.

This was all very different in the 1980s and early ’90s, when the Dartmouth Bookstore served as the intellectual and cultural center of the Upper Valley, a store with a happy, excited buzz to it, the place you could go and bump into friends, get good advice from the staff and always find the book you were looking for.

The secret of its success? Books. Simple as that. It was a store filled with books, book people, book lovers. Eventually, it would become sort of an ersatz department store, selling everything from lamps to sweatshirts, but in the years I’m talking about, books ruled supreme.

I remember the long table of sales books out on the sidewalk even in winter (and the “Egg Roll Man” setting up his stand just past them); the information booth near the cash registers where you could go for assistance; the huge rack of periodicals that lined one wall and turned the corner, stocked with such pre-internet treasures as three-day-old U.K. newspapers, and the dailies from Paris and Rome.

I remember how crowded the store would be at Christmas, and how cashiers always seemed to be pleading for reinforcements over the PA: “David Cioffi to the front desk please!” I remember lining up outside the store at midnight with my kids to buy the new Harry Potter.

It was the store you visited before going out for pizza at EBA’s, or while waiting for your clothes to dry at the laundromat or after a matinee at the Nugget.

Once, walking down the fiction aisle, I saw a woman sitting on the floor reading a book — reading my book! (I didn’t stick around long enough to see if she bought it, but she seemed engrossed.) My office shelves are still filled with books bearing faded Dartmouth Bookstore stickers on their backs, including one treasure bought in April 1988: the four-volume collected essays of George Orwell, which was purchased, I see, for $5.95.

After all the vicissitudes, the ups and downs of being in business for over a century, corporate indifference and mismanagement has killed it off. Without a major bookstore on the Allen Street corner, Hanover’s downtown is intellectually barren and boring in the extreme.

The powers that be in town and at the college should venture across the river to Vermont, get down on their hands and knees and beg people who know how to run a bookstore (I’m talking Norwich Bookstore here, Bear Pond Books in Montpelier, Northshire Bookstore in Manchester) to come over here and set up shop. And please, no Clinique makeup this time, but a bookstore that believes in books.

Losing a bookstore is bad enough, but, for writers, losing a publisher is even worse. Dartmouth College, perhaps reasoning that without a bookstore there’s no need for books, is pulling the plug next month on the University Press of New England (UPNE), and thereby doing real damage to the region’s literary and cultural landscape.

“Up-knee” was a wonderfully brave publisher, and in its 1990s heyday, under the leadership of director Phil Pochoda, it was responsible for a splendidly eclectic parade of books. This was as far from the traditional academic press model as it was possible to be; fewer monographs were on their list, and more general interest books for smart-and-savvy readers who could no longer find what they were looking for from the big New York publishers.

I have an UPNE catalog from 1996 beside me on the desk, and it gives a good idea of the kind of things the press was doing at its best. About to be published was a collection of the classic “archy and mehitabel” stories by don marquis (archy the cockroach tapped these out on a manual typewriter and could never manage the shift key for capitals); two novels in the “Hardscrabble Books” series written by living New England authors; books on historic New England gardens, national defense and the environment; the selected poetry of Brazilian master Joao Cabral de Melo Neto; an examination of the American Arts and Crafts movement in design; a study of the complex cultural hierarchies on display at discos; a history of vegetarianism and reprints of New England classics by Kenneth Roberts, Rockwell Kent, and Dorothy Canfield Fisher. And that’s just a few of the books on the spring 1996 list.

From a writer’s point of view, UPNE was a wonderful place to publish a book, providing the personal attention the big presses no longer delivered. I was fortunate enough to have a new novel listed in that 1996 catalog, and remember with gratitude how, on a wretched March night, director Pochoda drove through a snowstorm and tapped on our kitchen window with the first advance copy.

When it came to New England culture, literature and history, no publisher contributed so much. And now Dartmouth, for the usual specious reasons, has seen fit to kill it off.

The third institution we’ve lost this year is Vermont Life, which Gov. Phil Scott closed in June after more than 70 years as a state-run magazine. First conceived as a means of showcasing the state’s beauty and attracting tourists, it had a lot to do with creating the image — part myth, part reality — of idyllic beauty that the state still benefits from today.

It managed to be more than that. “The basic philosophy,” its longtime editor Tom Slayton explained, in an article lamenting its death, “was that you didn’t have to promote Vermont, all you had to do was present it in an accurate and intelligent way and people would respond.”

My own Vermont Life connections go way back. It was one of those magazines, random copies of which I found in my teens, that helped get me interested in someday living up north. The first working writer I ever met, Murray Hoyt, was a Vermont Life contributor. And I recall with pleasure a summer morning when their talented, meticulous photographer, Jon Gilbert Fox, spent several hours with me on Lake Fairlee, illustrating an article about fly fishing.

He had me stand in my canoe — stand! — while he shot roll after roll of me casting toward shore, waiting until the ripples spread out in the sunshine and just touched the canoe’s side. Perfect! It’s the photo that hangs on my office wall.

Each of these institutions was lost for reasons individual to them, but the larger implications for the world of books and literature are depressing in the extreme. It’s bad enough not to have bookstores, publishers, and periodicals, but it’s even worse when our cultural custodians decide we can manage just fine without them.

W.D. Wetherell’s new novel,Macken in Love, is out as an audio book from Audible Originals; he lives in Lyme.

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